We might be staring at more online censorship in India. The Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led government has reportedly issued an ultimatum to streaming services in India — the likes of Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Hotstar, Voot, Zee5, ALTBalaji, SonyLIV, and Jio — to form an independent adjudicatory body and adopt a new self-regulation code that might effectively work along the lines of how television content is moderated in India. That’s far from good news for subscribers, given self-regulation of TV channels, with the looming threat of fine and licence suspension, has given way to massive self-censorship on TV.
Mumbai Mirror was the first to bring word of a Monday meeting between Information and Broadcasting (I&B) Minister Prakash Javadekar and representatives of the aforementioned streaming services, in addition to Arre and MX Player. Javadekar is said to have cited the self-regulation or government-imposed censorship environment of countries such as China, France, and Singapore. He also brought up an anecdotal experience of watching online content with his family at home, using that as justification for the need of regulation. This argument reads like another spin on “Indian culture” and “Indian sensibilities”. Lastly, Javadekar said the players had 100 days to set up a council and a code of conduct.
For what it’s worth, an independent body along those lines has already been announced — in February, the I&B Ministry and the Internet And Mobile Association of India (IAMAI) came up with the Digital Curated Content Complaint Council (DCCCC), following last year’s self-regulation code, the “Code of Best Practices for Online Curated Content Providers”. While ALTBalaji, Arre, Eros Now, Hotstar, Jio, Netflix, SonyLIV, Voot, and Zee5 had all signed onto that, only five of them — Arre, Hotstar, Jio, SonyLIV, and Voot — are on board with DCCCC. Per Mumbai Mirror, four services have “refused to be a part” of the DCCCC, though it didn’t name them.
While last year’s self-regulation code was limited to content that went against Indian laws — anything that disrespects the national flag or emblem, has children engaged in real or simulated sex, offends religious sentiments, and promotes or encourages terrorism — the DCCCC is more far-reaching in its implications. (The only saving grace is that the DCCCC has excluded the religious sentiments bit.) Per reports, it allows for the government and viewers to file complaints about content on streaming services, which is bordering on pro-government censorship. Services would usually prefer to avoid complaints, and effectively engage in more self-censorship to be safe, as has been the case on TV.
And it’s not like we aren’t seeing pro-government censorship already — both Hotstar and Amazon have been guilty of this. Last week, Hotstar nuked an episode of the Emmy-winning HBO news satire talk show, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, that was critical of PM Modi. Amazon hasn’t signed onto any of the self-regulation codes but that hasn’t stopped it from self-censorship. It has axed an episode (Madam Secretary) that dealt with Hindu nationalism, violence against minorities, and the Kashmir situation. And in the past, it has gotten rid of most of an episode (The Grand Tour) or hidden an episode from the home page (American Gods) that involved cows — considered a sacred animal by Hindus — in ways that some viewers may not approve of.